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Leveling the Playing Field

National leaders discuss how to close minority achievement gaps.

By Cindy Long

When it comes to closing achievement gaps, what can our public schools learn from the Netherlands, who just beat five-time champions Brazil in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa?

“When the field is level, the rules are public, the goals are clear, and the referees are fair, we can make it,” said Reverend Jesse Jackson, one of four panelists at a forum hosted on Friday by the NEA Office of Minority Community Outreach.

Unfortunately, for many minority students, inequities in school resources and funding are a troubling reality. That was the topic of discussion at “The Emerging Majority: A Paradigm Shift,” where the panelists talked about the demographic transformation taking place in our country and its impact on public education, achievement gaps, and the dropout crisis.

Jackson joined Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; Hattie Kauffman, national news correspondent for CBS News Early Show; and Karen Narasaki, President and Executive Director of the Asian American Justice Center.

The panel was moderated by Judge Glenda Hatchett, host of syndicated TV show “Judge Hatchett,” the  first African-American Chief Presiding Judge of a Georgia state court, and the department head of one of the largest juvenile court systems in the country.

Hatchett kicked off the discussion by asking the panelists to explain why our fast growing minority populations still fall through the cracks of our educational system.

“I see some of the brightest children in my courtroom, and I wonder how we failed them,” she said. “Instead of us, they’ve put their trust in the drug dealers and the pimps; they’re heading down the wrong path when they should be our next generation of leaders.”

The panelists agreed that the dropout crisis, the growing achievement gaps, and the consistently low test scores among minority populations are all symptoms of the same problem – poverty.

“We have one million homeless children in our country, roaming nomads who we expect to do well on tests,” said Jackson. “And we’re telling these shoeless children to race to the top? It’s a contradiction in terms.”

Hattie Kauffman said when she reported on a school in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, she saw a building literally falling apart with exposed wires in classrooms and a condemned boiler in the basement still struggling to provide heat in the bitter winter months.

“How can you have equal achievement when our minority students are struggling to learn under those circumstances?” she asked. “Until financing is equal, we won’t have equal achievement.”

One way to do that, according to Henry Cisneros, is to break up the concentration of poverty.

“The deeper problem of school funding is segregation,” he said. “Our schools our segregated by income, because our neighborhoods are segregated by income.”

Karen Narasaki asked how our teachers can expect students with limited English to do well on standardized tests.

“That’s our fastest growing student population, and we’re silently pushing these students out because they’re lowering our schools’ test scores,” she said. “That can’t be our goal – to achieve high overall test scores by removing the students who scored lowest.”

After nearly two  hours of discussion, Judge Hatchett wrapped up the session with a personal story, telling the audience that, though it was hard to admit to a group of educators, she hated school when she was in first grade because she was given an old, mildewed book that had been thrown out by the nearby white school.

Some of the pages had been torn out, and she demanded that her teacher, Miss O’Neil, give her a new book so she could read all of the pages.

“But Glenda,” she was told. “Colored children don’t get new books.”

That day she ran home and told her daddy what her teacher had said, figuring that her father would fix it. Instead, he told her Miss O’Neil was right.

“Colored children don’t get new books,” he said. “So go in your room, get your crayons, and write your own story.”

That, Judge Hatchett said, is what educators need to remember. They might not be able to change the entire education system, but they can change a student’s perspective.

“Tell your students to write their own story,” she said.


Judge Glenda Hatchett presides over the syndicated television show “Judge Hatchett.”  She is Georgia’s first African-American Chief Presiding Judge of a state court, and is the founder of Parent Power Now, an online parenting network.

Honorable Henry Cisneros, the first Hispanic mayor of San Antonio, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Clinton Administration, former president of Univision, and current Chairman of CityView, a company that finances inner-city workforce housing in twelve states.

Reverend Jesse Jackson, renowned spokesman and advocate for African Americans, is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH, and of the Wall Street Project, which seeks to increase minority opportunities in corporate America, and is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for service to our country.

Hattie Kauffman is the national news correspondent for the CBS News Early Show and a member of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho.

Karen K. Narasaki is a nationally known civil rights leader and human rights activist, President and Executive Director of the Asian American Justice Center, and Vice Chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

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